Central Michigan University has consistently fielded one of the better pitching staffs in the Mid-American Conference (MAC) in recent years, due in part to a talented core of young pitching arms and the leadership of a coaching staff led by pitching coach Jeff Opalewski.
Although they have not secured a MAC Tournament Championship since winning back-to-back in 1994 and 1995, the Chippewas have been highly successful in conference play over the years. Over the last ten seasons, Central Michigan has captured four West Division championships, highlighted by a 2012 campaign that saw the Chippewas narrowly miss grabbing the Tournament win and advancing to the NCAA Tournament. As such, much of the success of Central Michigan’s recent teams can be attributed to the strength of their premier pitching staff.
College Baseball Central had a chance to talk to Jeff Opalewski on the success of the Chippewas’ pitching staff over the past five seasons, wherein he had some valuable insight to share on what success means for the Central Michigan baseball program.
“We have been able to cultivate an atmosphere of working really hard. Understanding we are dealing with young bodies that are in need of physical development it takes a lot of work from a strength and conditioning standpoint, as well as training the body how to move. It has been a lot of fun watching the 3rd and 4th year guys teach the first year guys how we do things the last few years-it really takes a lot off my shoulders and allows me to get to know these guys as people, so I can understand their needs and how to coach them.”
Between 2009 and 2012, the Chippewas finished amongst the top five teams in the MAC in team ERA, highlighted by a conference-best 3.65 ERA in 2010, a season that saw Central Michigan spout the MAC Pitcher of the Year (Jesse Hernandez) and MAC Freshman of the Year (Dietrich Enns), both of which garnered ALL-MAC first team honors.
Over the past 10 seasons, the Chippewas have posted a 165-96 record in conference play. As such, the Chippewas pride themselves on success, not only on the field, but also in the classroom.
Along with serving as the pitching coach, Opalewski also serves as the Chippewas’ recruiting coordinator. When asked what key qualities that Central Michigan looks for in recruiting a pitcher, he stressed the importance of a strong balance of qualities.
“Projection is probably the constant. Size, athleticism, arm action, arm speed, secondary pitches, hip speed are all factors that go into the equation as well. Academic success is an absolute. Makeup and competitiveness typically separate the pitchers we decide to recruit from the ones we pass on.”
Throughout fall practice, the Chippewas may have found their surefire number one starter heading into the 2014 season. Jordan Foley, who led the staff in starts (15), victories (6), innings pitched (90 2/3), batting average against (.209), and strikeouts (90) in 2013, has displayed impressive stuff this fall, highlighted by a perfect three-inning outing against the Ontario Blue Jays in September.
The Chippewas’ junior right-hander was originally drafted in the 26th-round of the 2011 MLB First-Year Player Draft by the New York Yankees and over the past two seasons has become one of the better pitchers in college baseball. Foley has a strong, athletic frame (6-3, 214) and a strong pitch arsenal anchored by an upper-90s fastball with solid movement and developing off-speed offerings.
“I’m just excited to go out there and compete against other teams again and show them what we’ve got,” Foley said. “We have a lot of guys coming back who played crucial roles last year and some new guys who are showing a lot in the fall.”
The focus of the pitching staff this fall was to adopt (and master) the fundamentals, while focusing on the skill-set and development of each individual player.
“As always our development plan is extremely individualized for each pitcher,” Opalewski said. “General themes we were trying to beat home top to bottom were to separate training from competing, reduce the number of walks that we have had the past 2 years and eliminate the running game.”
As fall practice winds down, the Chippewas will set their sights on the 2014 season and ready themselves for a competitive run at the MAC championship, wherein they will strive to take home MAC Tournament honors and advance to the NCAA Tournament.
Opalewski sums it up best as to what the pitching staff will need to accomplish in order to compete with MAC competition next season.
“One of the biggest things we will need to do is figure out roles for everyone. We have quite a few returning arms from last year, as well as some very good newcomers. There are going to be some guys that need to step up and take bigger roles-even though those roles may not necessarily equate to pitching more innings.
“Fortunately for us we have two of the best pitchers in the country in our #1 starter Jordan Foley and closer Matt Trowbridge. It makes it a lot easier to fill in the gaps when the front of the rotation and back of the bullpen are solid like that. If we can find the best situations for each of our pitchers to be successful we will have a very good, very deep pitching staff that will put us in a position to win another MAC championship and move on to NCAA Regional play.”
Opalewski, the rest of the coaching staff, and the talented arms on the pitching staff have contributed to a strong baseball program at Central Michigan University. Going forward, the Chippewas will look to continue that success into the 2014 season and beyond.